Monday, May 4, 2009
I love fashion. I also love London. I'm still trying to decide which I love more and if such a decision is even possible. Because of these loves, my ears perked up at the name Mrs. Ebury--a very, very minor character in Virginia Woolf's Between the Acts. Mrs. Ebury, mentioned only once, "had forbidden Fanny to act because of the nettle-rash" and with that, had completed her role as concerned townsperson. She might be completely forgettable, except for her name...Ebury. I'd heard that name somewhere before.
Ebury Street is the name of a street in London. But more importantly, Anya Hindmarch, one of my favorite British designers, had named a handbag after the street. I think that the handbag reference is what made the name stick. It really is a great bag, sturdy and classic, there's even a "bespoke" version that can be made in the buyer's (or recipient's) choice of leathers and then inscribed with a note, in the buyer's handwriting, above where the inside lining begins. I dream of having one of these bags given to me. But I digress.
The bag was named after a street and I wondered what significance the name might have for Woolf. Several of Woolf's characters, particularly in Mrs. Dalloway, seem to have names that are anything but random. Septimus Smith--a common surname, combined with a first name that bears the weight of the world. Septimus is every young man in England that was lost or damaged by World War I. Clarissa's last name, Dalloway, is perhaps a play on "dally"--she takes her time with everything, dallying in flower shops as well as her past. So, I figured I'd have a look around and see if Ebury Street could mean something special for Virginia Woolf. And it looks like it just might.
First of all, Ebury Street is located in Westminster, London. Nothing particularly special there, except that Clarissa Dalloway lived in Westminster. Perhaps Woolf, by using Mrs. Ebury as the character who takes Fanny out of the show because of nettle-rash, is making a comment on the upper-class Londoners who inhabit Westminster--maybe they're too cautious, unfair, or just not very much fun. I think that might be stretching it a little. Of more interest to Woolf, I think, is the person in her life who lived on Ebury Street: Vita Sackville-West.
Sure, Mozart lived on Ebury Street for a few months when he was writing his first symphony. Alfred Tennyson, a poet laureate who ran in Woolf's parents' social circle, also lived on Ebury Street--apparently spending much of his time there smoking shag tobacco and drinking port as well as writing Maud. However, it's no secret that Vita Sackville-West held a special place in Woolf's heart--their love affair lasted from sometime in the early 1920s until Woolf's death in 1941. I'm fairly confident that Mrs. Ebury was named after the street that Sackville-West (and her husband, Harold Nicolson) called home and a place that Woolf certainly visited more than once.
Call me crazy, maybe I am looking too far into this. I still can't figure out why Mrs. Ebury is the one to pull nettle-rash Fanny (that particular reference a blog post for another day, perhaps) out of the show and Googling "Sackville-West afraid of germs/contagions/rash" does no good at all. Regardless, though, I know two things for sure:
1. There's something there--it seems impossible that Woolf would name a character after the street her lover lived on purely by coicidence.
2. I want the Ebury bag...my birthday's right around the corner..I'm just sayin'.
This is my sixth semester as an Undergraduate and I still don't know the most efficient way to study for an English final. While I love compressing semesters into index cards that I then can neatly file away after finals, the index card is not compatible with Woolf's winding prose. I've also given up on the idea of rereading everything on the syllabus before even attempting to tackle this insane plan. Perhaps blogging will help?
If it wasn't for the very end of Between the Acts, I would have hated Oliver and Isa's marriage. Isa and Oliver both lust after other people; their marriage seems limiting and rather Victorian throughout the majority of the novel.
I began thinking of Isa and Oliver as a Victorian couple while reading Woolf's description of their initial meeting. The two were fishing when their lines got tangled so Isa gave in to her position as an inferior woman to the superior man by letting him take over. The fishing scene and the motif of fish in Between the Acts reminded me of the hacked fish that fascinates James and Cam Ramsay in To the Lighthouse. The hacked fish, which makes its appearance in between Lily's thoughts of Mrs. Ramsay, and all the numerous references to fish in Between the Acts present fish as a symbol for past, or Victorian, notions of traditions, marriage and family. For instance, Oliver follows Mrs. Manresa like a "fish on a line" (p. 74) after the narrator presents Oliver's infidelity as an accepted component of his and Isa's marriage. The fish in Between the Acts are consumed, caught, killed, and ordered for the traditional community play. Woolf presents fish as they are dieing or already dead, implying that Victorian notions of a proper family and marriage hinder modern men and, in particular, women.
While Woolf presents Oliver's infidelity as something Isa is forced to accept, Isa is not passive about the issue after Mrs. Manresa leaves. Isa rejects and insults Oliver during the rather phallic presentation of a fruit: "Giles offered his wife a banana. She refused it." (p.145) Isa remains quiet until she is left alone with her husband. Woolf presents Isa and Oliver on equal footing in a rather tender foreshadowing of their night. Oliver and Isa as husband and wife must openly present their qualms with one another before they can become intimate. Woolf presents the act of creation as one that requires the blending of two essences. Thinking of the girl and guy getting into the cab in A Room of One's Own led me to think that it is the sexual act between a male and female who are open with each other that seems the most balanced and, ironically enough, androgynous for Woolf.
The audience in Between the Acts cannot identify itself during the silent interval that Miss La Trobe labeled as "The Present Day" in the program. Even identifying what the members of the audience are not like proves unsuccessful: "they were neither one thing nor the other; neither Victorian nor themselves." (p. 121) While the audience is uncertain as to who they actually are, they are also unsure whether they are or aren't similar to the Victorians. This passage seems to capture a major Woolfian theme: the transition from the Victorian marriage and family structure into...
Well, that's left as a source of conflict for many of Woolf's female characters. Lily Briscoe triumphantly finishes her painting after feeling validated that the Rayley's marriage fails but her thoughts are paired with tears in To the Lighthouse. In Mrs. Dalloway, Clarissa thinks fondly of Peter Walsh and Sally Seton while married to Richard.
Isa and Oliver's marriage is unique in Woolf's body of work because the lasting impression Woolf leaves on the reader is a unity achieved through a harmonious action: "They spoke." (p. 147) Woolf concludes Between the Acts by describing an England beyond the reach of history books. The Victorians and the entire history of the British notion of marriage is wiped away; Isa and Giles become the model for husbands and wives in a new era of marriage.
Thursday, April 16, 2009
A couple months ago, I went through the process of applying for a teaching position with the Japanese government. The first stages of the application were straightforward and left me more or less in control of the impact of my application; I picked each and every word of my cover letter and employed careful phrasing, indentation, and even font choice on my résumé, carefully crafting an image of responsibility, creativity, and experience; my references were briefed with specific talking points distinct to each of them which, when read in the context of the others' letters, would create a balanced, enticing image. The application was genuinely a multimedia work of art, conceived with of coherent artistic agenda and executed with, I believe, considerable skill.
I lost control with the next stage: submit two passport-sized photos (2 x 2 inches). Left ear must be showing. Applicant should be photographed wearing business attire. Detach reply form from this letter at dotted line. Affix here using glue. Do not smile.
I'm still not entirely sure why that demanding little letter, with its series of staccato strictures, was so jarring, but I think Woolf may be on to something at the end of the Between the Acts, when the players turn the mirrors on the audience, to much consternation:
The hands of the clock had stopped at the present moment. It was now. Ourselves.
So that was her little game! To show us up, as we are, here and how. All shifted, preened, minced; hands were raised, legs shifted.
The audience is “laughed at by looking glasses” amid grumblings that the gaze of the mirrors is “distorting and upsetting and unfair”. The distortion is of their self-images, and the unfairness results when they are stripped of these images. The audience and I shared a similar dismay at having all of our calculated facades, the little projections and mythologies we exhibit, shorn away in the face of the determined Gaze.
You cannot argue with a mirror any more than you can with a camera.
Woolf's audience had only to see themselves, but my ill-shaven, sleep deprived, unkempt mug traced a circuitous route from the phototech at CVS's discerning gaze to the halls of the various ministries of the Japanese government, at one of which it remains today, enshrined in a manilla folder with the comments of some bored civil servant scrawled around it. There, prodded at, judged, evaluated, analyzed, and, ultimately, rejected, this utterly truthful, horrifying image, complemented by a series of little black squiggles, arranged in an oval shape and called my fingerprints, was left to plead my case.
In that moment, I became a member of that audience, offended and dejected that the story should end with nothing but the truth about myself.
Wednesday, April 8, 2009
Yet, as I warmed up to the characters and saw them in different frames of their lives, I began to sympathize with them. There seems to be such an abundance of misery and pain in this world that Mrs. Dalloway, Hugh, Peter, Richard, and Lady Bruton choose to focus on the superficial and less upsetting. Mrs. Dalloway veers around the awkward emotions creeping up on her since Peter has re-emerged into her life. She does not want to worry but knows that they have left things unresolved and unhappy. Will he be the same Peter who I once knew? Will he remember me? Us? Is life happy without me? These are questions that are perceptibly considered during the movie. The questions boil down to the significance of existence and how it shows in the lives of other people. Clarissa, nevertheless, shies away from such depth and introspective thoughts throughout the movie to utter “You won’t forget about my party! You’re coming to my party?” (except throw a British accent on it to pronounce pa-aw-ty).
Nonetheless, Septimus bears much of the depth in the movie, as well as in the novel for me. He is not afraid of introspection but suffers from it. He appears to be encumbered by every other character’s inability to deal with such deep thoughts, pains, and suffering. He endures enough suffering for all of them. When Mrs. Dalloway worries about her party or Peter about why Clarissa doesn’t like him or Lady Bruton about her new and brilliant cause or Hugh about stately appearance or Richard about…about…nothing really, Septimus is on the edge of such trivialities. He constantly hears a cacophony of sounds triggered by one “clamorous sound." He says "all the world is clamoring" and notices that he is finding it insufferably difficult to continue to be in such pervading anguish. He seems desensitized when he feels the most out of all of the characters. Hugh talks to Clarissa about his indisposed wife and Clarissa seems to feel very little when compared to Septimus’s reaction to Dr. Holmes as a “sneaky hunter.” (Dr. Holmes implies that Septimus is feeling lost or displaced mainly because “Men coming back from war…their work has been commandeered by women” and not because he saw a comrade, Evans, blown up in front of him.)
On the other hand, Septimus sets the tone of the movie and gives reason to why these characters are the way that they are. The movie opens with Italy 1918 and Septimus in the trench calling out to his comrade, Evans, before the comrade’s demise. Soft echoing music with still, detached notes resonates. This event is big. Perhaps, it is too big to live up to or to contemplate. It becomes easier to focus on the little things. Shift in the little things like choice of hat or dress or meaningless parties do not have as great or immediate an impact as actually confronting issues like death, the war, or suicide. Mrs. Dalloway’s patrons can experience momentary satisfaction in her parties and can reserve pensive remembrances of the night for later. Clarissa talks about the significance of a party to “give people one night in which everything feels really enchanted.” The aim of her having a party is to give a spark to life and to advocate appreciation for it. She tries to share this enchantment with her guests. Clarissa is connecting and uniting with people in a world with such solitary thoughts and trivial focus where the characters may fail to understand one another because they do not venture deep enough within themselves and each other to comprehend one another. Clarissa connects with her guests, with Septimus as a participant (not victim because she does not see it that way) of suicide and flower-shop onlooker, and with the woman she sees in the window from her balcony at the close of the movie. The difference between Septimus and Clarissa is that, among other things, Septimus turns away from the person he connects with and sees through the window across from Dr. Holmes’s office. He rejects personal connection while Clarissa seeks it and strives to maintain it.
All in all, Mrs. Dalloway was a bit long for me but accurately portrayed much of the novel, except for the car scene—a big scene to me. The hues used in the movie were beautiful neutrals and pastels that mirrored the level of passion and depth within the world of Mrs. Dalloway (tepid with superficialities). The costumes were nice pieces. The actors portrayed the characters well. Mrs. Dalloway is an interesting movie and an individual who likes to see the novel-to-movie transition should see it.
Tuesday, April 7, 2009
All three actresses play the parts very well, though I’m surprised Nicole Kidman got an Academy Award for her performance. Although good, it was not anything amazing. More so, Julianne Moore is perhaps the most dynamic of the three, playing Laura Brown who probably is the most delineated from the plot of Mrs. Dalloway. Rather, she is seen reading the book throughout and how it inspires her. Although not directly from Mrs. Dalloway, the character seems to have elements from other Woolf novels: the relationship between her and her son seems to have a touch of Mrs. Ramsay from To the Lighthouse and her inability to make a cake mirrors Rhoda’s trouble in The Waves to comprehend numbers.
Were it not for the middle story, the third story would have hardly any meaning. All the events eerily parallel Mrs. Dalloway and even most of the characters retain the names from the novel. Clarissa is trying to throw a party. Richard and Sally are switched as Sally is now in the long-term relationship with Clarissa, but there are obvious clues that Richard and Clarissa had a history. There is a daughter who comes home and a Peter character. What makes the novel so great is the relationship of these stories to the Septimus storyline. Instead, it is Richard who falls out the window (could see that one coming from a mile away) and AIDS is the substitute for shell shock.
It’s sort of comic that the characters know of Woolf’s novel, as it is even mentioned throughout, but do not realize they are carrying out situations and fates that are within the novel. The movie, however, looks great and the cinematography is very much inspired by Woolf, as it pays attention to details within the days of the characters, much as Woolf’s novel does. Phillip Glass’s wonderful music is probably what keeps the stories together. If you have never read Woolf’s novel, the story will probably be much more fascinating, but having read them and knowing how much deeper Mrs. Dalloway is, the movie does not reach to the same level as the novel.
Perhaps that’s why Clarissa Dalloway thinks that is so “dangerous to live for just one a day.” Everyday requires the courage to live with the choices we have made, while simultaneously making new ones.
Mrs. Dalloway, a film directed by Marleen Doris, stays true to that theme. We follow Mrs. Dalloway, played by Vanessa Redgrave (who looks curiously like Virginia Woolf in her physical appearance), during and after she makes the choice of a lifetime to marry the more “safe” and predictable Richard “Dalloway, it’s still Dalloway,” over the brash, young, and pocket-knife-fondling, Peter Walsh.
We also follow Septimus Smith (Rupert Graves). Septimus’ story makes evident that many choices are made for us. The death of his friend Evans, for instance, by a wartime blast was cruel and sudden. Overcome with grief and despair, Septimus cannot use human reason to categorize his friend’s death. The doctors, in turn, can’t seem to categorize Septimus and vow, instead, to “take him away.” Yet Septimus believes that the mark of his own sanity is the choice to go on living as he like and if he can no longer do that, then he chooses to die rather than be “in their power.” It is the audacity of Septimus’ choice as well as the one she made that summer in Borden which eventually posses Mrs. Dalloway's thoughts to the point in which she is compelled to reflect on them: “That young man killed himself, but I don’t pity him. I’m somehow glad he could do it- throw it away. It’s made me feel the beauty. Somehow feel very like him- less afraid.” The simple fact that Septimus made a choice is what is so attractive to Mrs. Dalloway, it recalls in her a time of youth and promise. It makes her realize how much life and promise is still left for her to live.
This is not an easy film to produce, for the obvious fact that it is novel based on first-person narration, which take place in the narrator’s own mind. At times I thought the insert of thoughts by Clarissa were rather forced and intrusive and disrupted the flow of the film, but Vanessa Redgrave's performance is so subtle and gracious, it is hard not to be enchanted by her. I was especially moved by the last scene. After Mrs. Dalloway asks herself: “What makes us go on?” She returns to the party. There she joins Peter, Richard and Sally in a dance. After the years of separation, loss, and defeats small and large, they still find comfort in one another, fun and even laughter. What makes us go on? It is moments like these, among friends and family, who, despite all our choices and whether they were for good or ill, can still gather together to celebrate one another and to celebrate life.
Monday, April 6, 2009
I could argue that Bernard's soliloquy is Woolf's version of bildungsroman for the lost male who finally achieves his destined role as a patriarch. After all, Bernard takes over as the sole voice of the concluding section. While the other voices distinguish themselves against others, Bernard is most capable of self-reflection and defining himself without necessarily comparing himself to the others.
Yet, I referenced to the "self" three times within the last sentence and it is precisely this issue of "the self", self-identity and being that is such a struggle for Bernard: "Let me cast and throw away this veil of being." (p. 218) For a character who has just taken over as the dominant being in the concluding section of work, Bernard seems more concerned with abandoning his self-identity rather than relishing in his maturation into a complete individual. Though he is appointed as the one to reflect upon the others and to stand as an individual at the moment that the sun sets over the waves, Bernard's reflection is a cumulation of experiences bound into the story of one life. Then the waves break on the shore and Bernard's being disappears.
The last line of The Waves could indicate death. It could also indicate a complete transcendence into a realm outside of the confines of semantics and linguistic structures. Woolf is a keen observer of relationships amongst people or, rather, the lack of boundaries between beings. Like the thread that extends between the characters of Mrs. Dalloway, the waves rock the beings within The Waves and unite them. However, Woolf achieves such fluidity in her prose that the beings lose their distinctive shapes until they are entirely freed from the confines of "identity" and "the self."
Just like the waves that dispersed Bernard's identity at the conclusion of Woolf's novel, the rain unbound my presence from the fibers of the book's pages.